Alachua County Fire Rescue Chief (ACFR) Harold Theus acknowledged on Tuesday that the county rescue staff is witnessing firsthand the surge of COVID-19 and the impact it is having on hospitals in North Central Florida.
According to Theus, longer wait times for beds and an increase in hospital transfers of COVID-19 patients from outlying communities to Gainesville are worrisome.
"It's a point of concern," Theus said in remarks at the Alachua Board of County Commissioners meeting on Tuesday. "As surrounding counties use Alachua hospitals, we're trying to work with them as they are trying to work with us."
Theus reported that the ACFR noticed a spike in wait times and daily transports in mid-July when numbers rose from 85 to now over 100 patients daily.
Theus said he met with officials from local hospitals that are all experiencing impacts from the surge, including UF Health Shands, North Florida Regional Medical Center (NFRMC) and the Malcom Randall VA Medical Center.
"Hospitals are being taxed with COVID patients rivaling last year," Theus said.
To help meet the demand, the ACFR added an extra rescue unit that operates from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and now tries to transfer patients to freestanding emergency departments.
The county has also stopped taking "step down" transfer patients from out of the area and is reserving space for patients in need of extra complicated treatment (step up) at Alachua County hospitals.
The Florida Department of Health has offered to set up a Medical Reserve Corps tent outside of local hospitals, if needed.
Theus said as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday, NFRMC reports 126 COVID-19 positive patients with 24 in ICU. Of those 126 patients, 90-92 percent are not vaccinated, he said.
And 100 percent of those 24 ICU patients are not vaccinated.
Theus reported that no COVID-19 vaccinated patients have been admitted to the NFRMC ICU.
Theus said UF Health Shands reported 152 total COVID-19 patients—a 42 percent increase from the numbers Shands reported to Mainstreet Daily News six days ago. Among those, 33 are ICU patients, including four who are under the age of 18.
In an effort to ease the pressure on Lake City Medical Center, ACFR has helped transfer patients to Gainesville.
"Lake City, Putnam are inundated with patients," he said.
BOCC Chair Ken Cornell said he has discussed the situation with Theus and local hospitals.
Theus reported that on Friday he got word that 50 percent of Lake City hospital patients were COVID-19 positive. In response, NFRMC brought in nursing staff and ACFR sent a bus to bring a handful of patients to Gainesville that night.
"Yesterday we had eight ICU patients who needed to get out of Lake City for better care," Theus said.
Both Gainesville hospitals have assured the ACFR that they have space, Theus said, adding that they're thinking outside the box to increase beds and nurses.
"A year ago, we talked about flattening the curve," Theus said. "The delta variant slipped up on us."
Members of the BOCC expressed concern that communities outside of Alachua County that have low vaccination rates are taxing the hospitals and affecting how they serve Alachua County residents.
"We are a regional hub," Cornell said. "Surrounding counties with less vaccinated are impacting our county."
According to the state's weekly COVID-19 report, 60 percent of Alachua County's population is vaccinated, which is in line with the state average of 61 percent. Columbia County, which includes Lake City, had a 37 percent vaccination rate as of July 29, while neighboring Gilchrist County sat at 33 percent.
The BOCC agreed to reach out to surrounding communities to help their public safety departments educate the public and share public service announcements that might encourage some to consider getting the vaccine.